Movies

Making an Elephant Soar with the Director and Stars of ‘Dumbo’

The joyous sounds of Casey Jr, rolled into Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon. The huffing and puffing of the rustic steam engine was an indicator that closely following by would be the promise of magic and wonder as soon as it arrived. For on that train came the legendary cast and director that would bring one of Disney’s most beloved animated classics to life, Dumbo.

Tim Burton, the legendary ringmaster led to the stage his circus troupe of experienced acting veterans. A veritable who’s-who of extraordinary talent — many of whom served as Burton-alumni from various projects — crossed the stage following Burton, including Colin Farrell, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green, Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton.

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The cast and Burton were anxious to begin, with Keaton even jokingly being ready to perform an impromptu comedy set. But as the crowd settled down the moderator started with a question for everyone:

“Which performer in a circus do you identify with the most?”

Farrell stated he wanted to be a seal. Parker stated she wanted to be a contortionist. Hobbins wanted to be a juggler to have an excuse to throw something at people’s faces. Green stated she admired the aerialists, as she has a fear of heights that she had to confront on this film. DeVito stated he loved the tightrope walkers due to their balance, grace, and daring. And Keaton concluded saying, at first, jokingly, that he wanted to be the snake in a snake handler’s act, before seriously concurring with Green, and stating his desire to fly like the aerialists.

As alumni of several Burton projects, DeVito and Keaton were asked what it was like to work with Burton (much to Burton’s shy embarrassment).

“I think he’s brilliant,” chimed DeVito. “He’s just a genius. He’s family. A talented person like Tim; a subject like Dumbo… he sends it out into the stratosphere. He’s one of a kind. We love him so much, and we love to see him squirm.”

“It’s true,” Keaton continued. “It’s a rare thing to work with an original. And to be in the thick of it. It’s absolutely true.”

Dumbo represents the first time Farrell, Parker, and Hobbins have worked with Burton, as well as Parker and Hobbins’ first movie. When asked about their time on set, the Hobbins had this to say.

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“I remember one of the first days of filming… Danny walked past, and we met for five seconds and each second was like an eternity… and then we met Colin, and Eva, and Michael, and then Tim. And it was just terrifying each time.”

Burton was then asked the quintessential question of why to direct Dumbo.

“Just the idea of a flying elephant, and a character that doesn’t quite fit in with the world. And something with a disadvantage makes it an advantage. So it just felt very close to the way I felt about things. And it’s just a very pure and simple image that most Disney fables had that kind of symbolism for real emotions.”

He was then asked about how he and screenwriter Ehren Krueger expanded on the story.

“I just liked the fact that, obviously it’s a very simple fable… What I liked about it was the human parallel story. This character Holt comes back from the war. He doesn’t have an arm, doesn’t have a job, doesn’t have a wife. He’s trying to find his place in the world. And all the characters are that way… Everybody is trying to find their place in the world… Lots of nice themes in a simple framework.

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Following Burton, the next question was directed at Farrell. Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a former cowboy and World War I soldier, who loses his arm, and his wife, and needs to keep his kids together. When asked about his role, he had this to say:

“As Tim was saying, everyone and their character has doubts about their past, or what’s going on in the present, or both,” Farrell began, “And so I’m playing a father who is disenfranchised with his kids, disenfranchised from the life he left behind. He’s completely different by the time he gets back fighting from the first War. He’s physically a different man, he’s lost his left arm. He’s seen a lot of brutality… [it’s about] my character accepting his position as father, and how that meant all he had to do was get out of his children’s way to help them get there.”

In the film, Green plays French acrobat, Colette Marchant, who finds kindred spirits in Dumbo and the Farrier family. She was asked about whether or not she identified with the themes of the film.

“You don’t have to be an artist to feel like an outsider,” she stated. “It’s such a wonderful movie, because it has that message that it’s okay to be strange or different. It’s actually great. It makes you special and we just have to embrace our uniqueness.”

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She was then asked about how the movie helped her conquer her fear of heights.

“I had the most amazing circus people, who were very patient, very kind with me. Because I was absolutely petrified. I thought I’d never be able to do that. And so for 2 months every day I trained. [You needed] a very strong core, very strong arms. And every time I’d go higher and higher and higher. And that was amazing. I found the trick was to sing as well, in French… you swear and you sing. And I surprised myself. It was a miracle”

Dumbo also marks a bit of a Batman Returns reunion for Burton, DeVito, and Keaton. When asked what it was like to reunite with Keaton on this film, but in opposite roles this time, DeVito stated this:

“It was really good. When Tim called a year ago, I was really thrilled to be able to be part of it. And the joy factor went up through the roof when Michael was in it with me,” DeVito stated.

“The joy factor was that the first thing he reminded me was that he got to be the hero, and I got to be the bad guy. He was thrilled with that,” Keaton joked.

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“I’d ask him every once in a while, ‘how does it feel to be the bad guy,’ [Before] he had the mask. The whole Batman thing…and me, I had this gross penguin makeup,” DeVito added, laughing. “It was really so nice to be with him and with everybody who was in the movie with us together. Like Tim says it’s a great family that he creates. We’re all weirdos, but there’s one really weird daddy pulling all the strings. So we were thrilled to be together.”

“Welcome to the Island of Misfit Toys,” retorted Burton in response.

The heart and soul of the film are essentially the family at the center of it, and their relationship with the eponymous flying elephant. When Parker and Hobbins were asked about what it was like to work with the on-set stand-in for Dumbo, they had this to say:

“We were with him the whole time,” stated Parker. “And when we found out he was in Tarzan and could do the ape-walk, we took such advantage of that!”

Keaton, who plays V.A. Vandevere in the film, got to really chew the scenery as the main villain of the movie. Sporting a sharp Colleen Atwood designed white suit with black pinstripes, and a very manufactured stylish white wig, he was asked how it was to wear the wig and how that process came about.

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“It’s been so great and weird, and odd and off-putting, and so well done… So what happened was, I didn’t want to sit in a makeup chair for very long, for hair and makeup. I just don’t like to be there. So I said ‘I’m not going to say anything.’ And [Tim] didn’t say anything… So I show up, and Tim was there, and he and I and Colleen [Atwood] were [reviewing the costume]. And that’s where you start taking your character from here to there.  Once you feel the clothes you start walking around in… So I had at the back of the head, I was thinking “don’t mention the wig, don’t say anything about the wig.” And as soon as I did, I said “hey this is probably a dumb idea but what do you think about a wig?” And as soon as I said that [Tim’s] eyes lit up. And I went ‘shoot! Now I have to wear the stupid wig!’”

In all fairness however, the wig did, in fact look amazing!

On a more serious note, a question came up for Burton and Keaton about the relevance of the separation of Dumbo and his mother, and whether in the current political climate, the idea of children being separated from their families in a hostile manner in US detainment facilities at the Mexican border was something they had thought about. They responded with this:

“Well any family situation…most people don’t want to separate their family from their parents… It’s a fable, and all great fables tap into things that are true about today…but it’s not literal. It’s a period movie. It’s a fable. It touches on these things. But we try not to have it ripped from today’s headlines,” stated Burton.

“Thanks for bringing it up, and keeping it in the consciousness,” Keaton spoke out. “This is criminal. It’s cruel. And I don’t think it boarders on child abuse, I think it is.”

As a closing question, DeVito was asked whether or not his performance as a ringleader of a troupe of performers was inspired at all by Burton as a director, leading his troupe of actors.

“Well everything I do in the movie is fed to me by the insane mind of Mr. Burton. I felt really great to be Max Medici, and to be a part of this insane family. The thing is it is a family, and Max is trying to keep everything together and keep all the elephants up in the air. Tim just works 24/7 when he’s working on a movie, keeping everything going, keeping all the plates spinning, keeping all the balls in the air…so I feel like he’s an inspiration while we’re on the set and pushing things to new heights.”

And new heights is indeed where this troupe is going to take the beloved classic, as Burton and his band of dedicated circus performers show the world, once more, that an elephant can soar!

Dumbo flies theaters and back into our hearts on March 29, 2019!

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